Can We Improve Time Usage by focusing on the U-Index? Joe Abittan

Can We Improve Time Usage?

I believe that we can come together as a society and make decisions that will help improve the world we live in. I believe we can cooperate, we can improve systems and structures, and we can change norms, customs, and procedures to help make the world a better place to live in. I believe we can reduce the U-index in each of our lives.

 

Daniel Kahneman describes the U-index, a term his research team coined, in his book Thinking Fast and Slow by writing, “We called the percentage of time that an individual spends in an unpleasant state the U-index. For example, an individual who spent 4 hours of a 16-hour waking day in an unpleasant state would have a U-index of 25%.”

 

To a certain extent, the U-index is a measure of how well people use their time. Some of us are great at maximizing our waking hours and filling our time with meaningful and enjoyable activities. Some of us are not great at it, and some of us have serious limitations that prevent us from being able to use our time in a way that would maximize our individual U-index. “The use of time is one of the areas of life over which people have some control,” Kahneman writes, but still, there are larger structural factors that shape how we can use our time. Long commutes, limited child care, poor service quality in the public and private sectors, and limited spaces for socialization and exercise can all contribute to the amount of time people spend in unpleasant states, and are largely beyond the control of a single individual. Investments in these spaces will help improve the U-index for the people who get trapped by them. They are also areas where we can make public investments, come together as communities to improve the use of public space, and pool resources to develop new technologies that can reduce travel time, create more responsive and quicker services, and reduce the effort spent dealing with unpleasant people and spaces.

 

For things we can control, Kahneman has a recommendation, “The feelings associated with different activities suggest that another way to improve experience is to switch time from passive leisure, such as TV watching, to more active forms of leisure, including socializing and exercise.”

 

Watching TV, listening to podcasts, or reading a book can be great leisure, but we are social animals, and we need some degree of interaction with others. Unfortunately, we have become more dependent on TV and other fairly antisocial and isolating forms of entertainment. As each of us retreats into our homes (during non COVID times of course) for entertainment and leisure rather than spending time in our community with others, we reduce the opportunities for and the value of social activities. The more we get out and connect, the better our lives will be collectively.

 

And that is why I believe it is important that we believe that we can make the world a better place. There is an element of personal responsibility in making better use of our time and improving our U-index through our own choices and actions. Simultaneously, there is a social and public need for investment and collective action to help us make those choices which are more active and engaging. We won’t want to get out and take part in social activities if we have a long and difficult commute. If we can’t live in the city or in an interesting place with opportunities to interact with others because we can’t afford to live close by, then we won’t make the effort to get involved. If we don’t have safe, clean, and inviting parks and public spaces where we can engage with others, if businesses and public agencies can’t provide spaces with adequate and friendly services, then we won’t want to connect with the world. Kahneman suggest that even small reductions of say 1% to our societal U-index would be hugely impactful. Anything we can do to help reduce the time people spend in unpleasant states will mean fewer suicides, less depression and anger, and fewer negative interactions between people. Making investments to speed up travel, free people from menial tasks and chores, and make public spaces more inviting will help us connect and be happier as an entire society. At that point, it becomes easier to chose active rather than passive leisure and to be more involved rather than to retreat into our homes and Netflix accounts.
The Remembering Self

More on the Remembering Self

Daniel Kahneman in Thinking Fast and Slow describes the remembering self as a tyrant, ruling what we do in the present moment by controlling our thoughts of the past. My last few posts have focused on how poorly we remember events from our past, and how we can be thought of as having an experiencing self and a remembering self. The experiencing self, the one that actually has to wake-up and get out of bed to face the day, is the one that actually lives our life. The remembering self only reflects back on what we have done. It doesn’t remember how awful writing all those school assignments was, it doesn’t remember how tired we were going to the gym for the fourth day in a row, and it doesn’t remember how pleasant it was to just relax for a whole day in front of the TV. Its memory is faulty, plagued by errors and biases in thinking, giving it a false sent of past experiences.

 

The remembering self doesn’t accurately remember the past, and it isn’t aware of itself or its separation from the experiencing self. It behaves and thinks much differently from the experiencing self, but within our minds, we don’t notice when we slip between the experiencing and remembering self, and we don’t realize how much we forget when we look back at our experiences. This creates problems when we think about how we should live, what we would like to do with our lives, and what our experiences have been. Kahneman writes,

 

“Confusing experience with the memory of it is a compelling cognitive illusion – and it is the substitution that makes us believe a past experience can be ruined. The experiencing self does not have a voice. The remembering self is sometimes wrong, but it is the one that keeps score and governs what we learn from living, and it is the one that makes decisions. What we learn from the past is to maximize the qualities of our future memories, not necessarily of our future experience. This is the tyranny of the remembering self.”

 

In my life, I want to look back and remember that I have done a lot of running. Many days, I don’t actually feel like getting out on a jog, but I know that in the future I will want to remember that I ran X number more miles in December of 2020 than I did in December of 2019. The experience of cold toes, of headlamp impressions on my forehead, and the hard work of running in the dark early mornings doesn’t matter to my remembering self. Those things will be diminished in my memory compared to the memory of having done something difficult and impressive. The fact that my remembering self has different priorities than my experiencing self is healthy with regard to running (as long as I don’t go overboard), but it can also be costly and even dangerous in our lives. The father who spends all his time working and neglects his children is being ruled by the remembering self in a similar way. He wants to remember himself as being hard working, as sacrificing for his family, and as being a successful high-earner. He gives up time he may enjoy hanging out with his kids, because the remembering self won’t remember that enjoyment as positively as the economic gains will be remembered from the extra hours of work, or as strongly as the social media pictures posted online. This example isn’t perfect, but it does contrast the way in which our remembering self can drive us toward unhealthy behaviors stemming from the remembering self’s more selfish take on our lives.

Enjoyment

Philosopher W.V. Quine wrote a letter to James Harmon for his book, Take My Advice: Letters to the Next Generation from People Who Know a Thing or Two. In his letter the philosopher writes about cultivating curiosity, striving for a job that you enjoy as much as your leisure time after the job, and building meaningful friendships.  His letter is brief, but is full of wisdom that is easy to comprehend and powerfully reinforced in his writing.

 

In the first part of his letter he writes, “enjoy what you are doing, what you are seeing as fully as you can find anything in it to enjoy.”  When I first read this section I  thought about my “Luck Diary” that began after listening to an episode of Smart People Podcast.  I had listened to an interview with Richard Wiseman who wrote a book about the science of luck, and one of his recommendations was to keep a journal of ones lucky experiences from each day. The journal reminds me of what good things happen each day, so that I go to bed focused on positive events rather than the negative. It also helps me be thankful for experiences that I have on a daily basis, and for all the good things that happen to me in general.

 

I think that Quine’s message in the quote above is very similar to Bruce Benderson’s message in my previous post about finding enjoyment in all that we do.  Quine is encouraging everyone to find even the smallest pieces of the mundane tasks and chores of life that are enjoyable, and to savor those enjoyable pieces.  Quine continues on to encourage us to look for careers where the mundane tasks that we dislike are at a minimum so that we can enjoy the work we do almost as much as we enjoy our leisure time after work.  This strategy may make it a little easier to find the pieces that you enjoy, and focus on your luck for being around things that are enjoyable.

Art

Bruce Benderson talks about living a full life, even if others are critical of the way you live, in his letter to James Harmon for Harmon’s book, Take My Advice.  The quote from Benderson that I highlighted is, “Art is the radical decision to enjoy yourself at all cost.” When I reflect on this quote what I love is the idea of having a craft (drawing, writing, singing, bowling, etc…) and fully embracing and enjoying myself in the moment of executing a craft.  Benderson encourages us to think of our art as play, which to me means that we are always willing to try something new, change our approach, and look at things from new perspectives, because in the end our goal is not success as outsiders may define it, but the goal instead is a fullness that comes from expanding ones talent.

In his message is the idea that we can work our way forwards in our art or craft by remembering what it is we enjoy about the craft, and what pushed us to begin the craft.  I think we can also take this message and apply it to other areas of our life. Reminding ourselves what we love about our loved ones, the city we live in, and the job we have may help us appreciate those things.  I just finished a book called 59 Seconds: Think a Little, Change a Lot written by Richard Wiseman. In his book he writes about the scientific backing to strategies, ideas, and myths that are popular in self-help communities. What he pulled from scientific literature on happiness is the idea that people who sit down and write out their thoughts about what they love in another person or what they are thankful for in their life tend to be happier and have stronger relationships.

I think we can combine these two ideas and start to develop a greater appreciation for the life and craft that we have. We can focus on why we do what we love to do, and what we enjoy from the jobs we do to sustain ourselves and family.